Seneca stuffs her bra and dyes her hair platinum, so at all of 11, it looks like she has a lot of the world figured out. It’s possible she had a kid-crush on fellow fifth-grader Gidion Fell, whose body was found at the end of a rope on the heels of a bullying incident; such is the extent to which Gidion’s Knot playwright Johnna Adams draws her.
You’ll naturally conclude that Gidion’s death has affected Seneca deeply, but amid Adams’ hasty writing, you won’t really know why.
The good news is that this takes little away from the performances themselves in this two-hander from InnerMission Productions. Company artistic co-director Kym Pappas and assistant Jose Galvan have navigated around the script’s choppier waters, exploiting the cast’s acting chops when Adams’ effort lets down.
The upshot is that, on the heels of a very fine Seven Spots on the Sun (in which miracles shone through the ravages of civil war), InnerMission has more or less done it again — this time in a wholly different setting that’s nonetheless as wrenching and political.
InnerMission presents the show in recognition of The Trevor Project, a group of volunteers helping raise awareness of the group’s mission to end suicide among LGBTQ youth. For more information, see TheTrevorProject.org.
One interesting angle to this show is that we’re never really sure if Gidion was the bully or the bullee — such is the paucity of answers during a confrontation between Heather Clark, Gidion’s teacher, and Corryn Fell, his mom. A scheduled parent-teacher conference on the matter never takes place amid the school principal’s absence (Heather already knows the latter won’t be present); all that’s left for book-smart Corryn is to ruminate on her son’s suspension from school.
That leaves thousand upon thousands of anecdotes untapped as Corryn’s allegorical side gets short shrift.
From there, Corryn and Heather jockey for position (alternately cordially and adversarial) on topics ranging from freedom of speech to cyberbullying, their heartrending effects broken only by a quirky confab about Heather’s diabetic cat.
Adams has a good story to tell, but she often doesn’t stop long enough to let it ferment, much less answer the questions she raises. Much of the exposition unfolds here as an inquisition, with the headstrong Corryn grilling the reticent Heather in search of dialogue on Gidion or, to a much lesser extent, Seneca. The National Center for Educational Statistics says that one out of five students was bullied in 2016, with fully two-thirds of those letting the incidents go unreported; that leaves thousands upon thousands of anecdotes untapped as Corryn’s allegorical side gets short shrift.
Consequently, Heather’s character suffers — she can’t be expected to address narratives of which she’s unaware.
But whereas Jyl Kaneshiro’s Corryn is Heather’s immovable object, the dowdy teacher (who’s eternally tied to her desk, if the initial paper-grading sequence is any barometer) is the irresistible force. Carla Nell is spot-on in the part, the character’s careworn affectations at odds with her stalwart defense of educational protocol. Corryn is consequently enraged at both the system and the circumstances of her visit to Heather’s classroom — and Kaneshiro juggles both miens like the expert she is.
The play is mounted at Diversionary Theatre’s upstairs black box, whose lofty walls and spartan decor make an appropriate enclosure for Robert Malave’s bare-bones set. Alanna Serrano’s costumes, Alex Guzman’s sound and Nate Cargill’s lights settle in accordingly, letting the two fine performances speak for themselves.
It doesn’t seem possible, but this is InnerMission’s 12th year as an enterprise. That means it’s weathered a nasty storm during which companies came and went, staying true to its intensely sociopolitical message. The tide is in its favor now — and it’s got another good entry here, better than is promised by the script.
Martin Jones Westlin’s e-mail address is [email protected]
This review is based on the matinee production of May 28. Gidion’s Knot runs through June 10 at Diversionary Black Box, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $25, $20 seniors/students/military. innermissionproductions.org, 619-324-8970.